Django’s Life

Django’s Birth – C’est Arrivee

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Django’s Birth Certificate 23rd January 1910

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The Family were Manouche, a Tribe that had migrated from its Homeland in North-west India during the 11thC and continued its travels throughout Europe. Their dark skin & dark, heavily lidded eyes still betrayed their Hindu antecedents. Reinhardt’s early years reflected the Nomadic traditions of his people. He travelled around Europe & North Africa, finally settling just outside Paris at Barriere de Choisy in an area called the ‘Zone’ after 1918.

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Reinhardt was born on 23rd January 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a Belgian family of Manouche Romani descent.  His father was Jean Eugene Weiss, but domiciled in Paris with his wife, he went by Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt, his wife’s surname, to avoid French Military conscription.  His mother, Laurence Reinhardt, was a Dancer.  The birth certificate refers to “Jean Reinhart, son of Jean Baptiste Reinhart, Artist, and Laurence Reinhart, housewife, domiciled in Paris”.   A number of authors have repeated the claim that Reinhardt’s nickname, Django, is Romani for “I awake”; however, it may also simply have been a diminutive, or local Walloon version, of “Jean“.  Reinhardt spent most of his youth in Romani Encampments close to Paris, where he started playing the violin, banjo & guitar. He became adept at stealing chickens, which was viewed as a noble skill by the Romani, because part of their means of survival on the road was to steal from the non-Romani World around them.   His father reportedly played music in a Family Band comprising himself and 7 Brothers; a surviving photograph shows this Band including his father on piano. Reinhardt was attracted to music at an early age, first playing the violin. At the age of 12 he received a banjo-guitar as a gift. He quickly learned to play, mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched, who would have included local virtuoso players of the day such as Jean “Poulette” Castro and Auguste “Gusti” Malha, as well as from his uncle Guiligou, who played violin, banjo & guitar.  Reinhardt was able to make a living playing music by the time he was 15, busking in Cafés, often with his brother Joseph. At this time, he had not started playing Jazz.  He received little formal education and acquired the rudiments of literacy only in adult life.

At the age of 17 Reinhardt married Florine “Bella” Mayer, a girl from the same Romani settlement, according to Romani custom (although not an Official Marriage under French Law).  The following year he recorded for the 1st time.  On these recordings, made in 1928, Reinhardt plays the “banjo” (actually the banjo-guitar) accompanying the accordionists Maurice Alexander, Jean Vaissade & Victor Marceau, and the singer Maurice Chaumel.  His name was now drawing international attention, such as from British Bandleader Jack Hylton, who came to France just to hear him play.  Hylton offered him a job on the spot, and Reinhardt accepted.  Before he had a chance to start with the Band, however, Reinhardt nearly died. On the night of 2nd November 1928, Reinhardt was going to bed in the Wagon that he and his wife shared in the Caravan.  He knocked over a candle, which ignited the extremely flammable celluloid that his wife used to make artificial flowers. The Wagon was quickly engulfed in flames. The couple escaped, but Reinhardt suffered extensive burns over half his body.  During his 18 month hospitalisation, doctors recommended amputation for his badly damaged right leg. Reinhardt refused the Surgery and was eventually able to walk with the aid of a cane.

More crucial to his Music, the 3rd Finger (ring finger) and 4th finger (pinky) of Reinhardt’s left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play Guitar again. Reinhardt applied himself intensely to relearning his Craft, however, making use of a new Guitar bought for him by his brother, Joseph Reinhardt, who was also an accomplished Guitarist. While he never regained the use of those 2 fingers, Reinhardt regained his musical mastery by focusing on his left Index & Middle Fingers, using the 2 injured Fingers only for Chord work.  Within a year of the Fire, in 1929, Bella Mayer gave birth to their son, Henri “Lousson” Reinhardt. Soon thereafter, the couple split up.  The son eventually took the surname of his mother’s new husband. As Lousson Baumgartner, the son himself became an accomplished musician who would go on to record with his biological father.

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Django & Naguine’s Marriage 1943

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After parting from his wife and son, Reinhardt travelled throughout France, getting occasional jobs playing Music at small Clubs.  He had no definite goals, living a hand-to-mouth existence, spending his earnings as quickly as he made them.  Accompanying him on his travels was his new girlfriend, Sophie Ziegler. Nicknamed “Naguine,” she and Reinhardt were distant cousins.  During the years after the Fire, Reinhardt was rehabilitating and experimenting on the Guitar that his brother had given him.  After having played a broad spectrum of Music, he was introduced to American Jazz by an acquaintance, Émile Savitry, whose record collection included such musical luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang. Hearing their music triggered in Reinhardt a vision and goal of becoming a Jazz Professional.  While developing his interest in Jazz, Reinhardt met Stéphane Grappelli, a young Violinist with similar Musical interests.   He and Grappelli frequently jammed together, accompanied by a loose circle of other musicians.  Reinhardt acquired his 1st Selmer Maccaferri Guitar in the mid-1930s.

From 1934 until the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, Reinhardt and Grappelli worked together as the principal soloists of their newly formed Hot Club, in Paris. It became the most accomplished and innovative European Jazz Group of the period

“Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection & Instrumental precision that I admire in Classical Music, but which popular Music doesn’t have.” – Django Reinhardt